This is a work of cultural critique, but one mainly addressed to reforming the way cultural critique is practiced in the social sciences. This is not to say I abandon the anthropological task of making truth claims about our social conditions. Indeed, the impetus for my work has been a sustained conviction that in contemporary, capitalist America, our notions of economy are profoundly uneconomical, or, as philosopher Stanley Cavell has put it in his interpretation of Thoreau's Walden as a critique of political economy:
. . . our facts and ideas of economy are uneconomical,. . . they do not meet but avoid true need,. . . they are as unjust and impoverishing within each soul as they are throughout the soul's society. (1981: 126)
Three years of research in Antelope Valley have indeed sustained and sharpened this conviction. This study of home-buying has enriched my understanding of the market economy's penetration of social relations. My findings lend weight to the Marxist claim that the capitalist economy as it has developed "means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market" (Polanyi 1957: 57). The life experiences and statements of my key informants illustrate some of the negative consequences of this market penetration, in particular, the extreme tensions between their ideals of family and community and their lived social relations. This line of argument might be seen as a critique of our culture's dominant self-understandings. These self-understandings hold that the American free-market system sustains "the family" (footnote 1) (a claim broadcast in the advertising jingle "mom, apple-pie and Chevrolet"); and they hold up homeownership as a quintessential sign embodying at once financial and familial success. Yet, my ethnographic data cast these self-understandings in a paradoxical light, showing the requirements of home ownership to be in conflict with the very ideals of family and community a home is said to represent.
This critique of our dominant cultural self-understandings comprises one of this paper's two arguments. Because I feel a critique ought to propose alternatives; and because my epistemological perspective prevents me from claiming the knowledge or authority to prescribe alternatives to my informants and the people I take them to represent, this critique is not the only argument I seek to advance. My other argument centers on the practice of social theory, in particular, the social theory developed and used by those who see cultural critique as one of the main tasks of social science. Over the last twenty years, "cultural criticism as a self-conscious or defacto justification for research has come to infuse a number of disciplines" (Marcus and Fischer 1986:117). This resurgence of the critical function of social research follows in the wake of pervasive postmodernist challenges to the Enlightenment project of knowledge (Marcus and Fischer 1986:112, 118). My second argument is that scholars who accept the postmodernist critique, yet uphold the critical function of social science, must reconceive social theory as practice. Further, I bring this reconceptualization to bear on the Marxist tradition of social critique, specifically, on Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of cultural reproduction. I argue that reconceiving theory as practice: (1) points up the value of ethnographic inquiry; and (2) requires a reexamination of the complex interplay between structure and agency in the processes of cultural reproduction. Thus, because it proposes alternatives, I see this argument as comprising a more profound, or genuine, critique than the one I offer of our contemporary, capitalist society.
These two critiques--one of dominant cultural self-understandings, the other a sort of "metacritique" of the theorizing practices of social critics--comprise the body of this monograph. Both stem from three years of field research on the buying and selling of tract houses in Southern California's Antelope Valley. Both are grounded in my qualitative research on the norms of participating in modern consumer society. Thus, though these two critiques differ widely in nature, they are inextricably intertwined by virtue of their common genesis. In the following section, I will briefly describe the background of my research, tracing therein the development of each of my two critical arguments.
In the summer of 1990, I set out with a colleague to examine "the gaps", if any, between the vision of life in Antelope Valley marketed by tract housing developers and that bought and lived by the residents of these "new home communities", as they are called. My colleague and I were enrolled in an ethnographic filmmaking workshop and chose this field project because it was consistent with our interest in contemporary, industrial society; and the model homes displayed to market tract housing fascinated us. The problem as we then conceived it was, how do people make these uniform houses their own. Do they adopt the developer's decorating suggestions; and, if not, is there some other logic to their home-furnishing? At the time I was reading Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle and came to this subject matter with the thought (semi-repressed that it might later be "discovered" in the data) that our study would yield a concrete critique of a society where social relationships are mediated by things. I came away from this six-week study with an unsettling discovery--not about the people and housing of the Antelope Valley--but about the automatic and enacted nature of class division.
The initial study had two foci. The first was the presentation of life in the Antelope Valley made by developers in the architecture of tract houses; names of neighborhoods and home models; decor and furnishing of display models; and in the accompanying sales literature. Second, we explored the way residents lived in these tract homes: we spoke to people about why they chose their homes and were given extended, video-taped "decor-tours" through three dwellings, the owners guiding us, explicating their choices. Each week we returned from the field to show our footage to our filmmaking class and each week were dismayed by the fact that our peers assessed this footage in terms of our informants' "bad-taste", "tackiness" and "lack of style". They felt we were somehow poking fun at our subjects. It seemed that to simply show a woman talking seriously about her decorating choices was to pronounce the leaden judgment--"bourgeois mystification". Almost everyone we knew was an "expert" on the processes at work among Antelope Valley home buyers and could pronounce this judgment automatically. Upon hearing of my research, one anthropologist, an accomplished scholar who would no doubt look with cultural sensitivity upon any number of "bizarre" social practices, exclaimed, "what empty lives those people must live!"
The sign of an ideology is a kind of inertness in discourse: a fixed pattern of imagery and belief, a syntax which seems obligatory, a set of permitted modes of seeing and saying; each with its own structure of closure and disclosure, its own horizons, its way of providing certain perceptions and rendering others unthinkable, aberrant or extreme. (Clark 1984: 8)
As filmmakers whose subjects would view our final product, we were sensitive to the problems of presenting such a shallow criticism. As anthropologists, we found it difficult to make the analysis we had planned: everyone seemed to know it already and analyses are not supposed to be automatic! We considered the technique of di-phony, showing both sides, which is often used to tackle topics so thicketed with preconceptions as to risk clichŽ by default. The problem in Antelope Valley, however, was that there was no other side. The sides which seem to stand opposed in one or another formulation of the issue have never stood upon the same ground. Those who cry "bourgeois mystification" (as I did) have, self-admittedly, removed themselves from everyday living, if only in their presumption to stand above it. Those who say the things they live with and work for reflect only their personal preferences, speak from the midst of daily life. If I see the spectacle of accumulation, social relations mediated by things, where others see homes and furnishings that reflect their personalities, perhaps we are not looking at the same thing.
In our last week of the class project, our locus of interest shifted to the perceptions that "intellectuals" had of our Antelope Valley informants. These groups seemed to be at a strange distance from one another: the Valley folk were far enough away to be seen as "other", yet close enough to be "analyzed" at a glance. I came to see that my first interpretation (the stale, automatic one more or less shared by my peers) and the life-styles of the Antelope Valley are but two sides of the same coin, the coin of our realm: separation, which is sometimes called "class"
"What would you say", I asked one Antelope Valley informant, "to intellectuals... uh...city-dwellers......students who don't have homes and families,.....who see these houses and say, 'gosh, I'd never live there, they're all alike, without style...not individual?"
"Stay where you're at", he replied.
It was this experience that led me to focus my subsequent research in Antelope Valley on taste and the process of cultural reproduction. Yet, the "strange distance" between the facile judgment of bourgeois mystification (itself perpetuating of the fields it purports to examine) and its object (the norms of participating in modern consumer society) continued to haunt me. I went on to center my research on the question of whether Antelope Valley's new homeowners are indeed "mystified", passively adopting the tastes marketed to them by developers, and this inquiry led to my critique of some of our society's dominant self-understandings. However, my restless anxiety about the position of cultural critics vis-ˆ-vis the people they study persisted. This anxiety was heightened by my reading of the literature on popular taste and cultural reproduction. Even the brilliant work of scholars like Adorno and Bourdieu seemed to bear the traces of the leaden judgment of mystification of which I spoke. My anthropological training had instilled me with a profound sensitivity to the existence of "other" cultural logics, yet everywhere I read that the working classes in consumer societies operate by, are subject to, a logic not their own. This tension remained with me throughout by research and served to generate my critique of the theorizing practices of social critics. In the following section, I will present this critique broadly, situating it relative to the postmodernist work on which it draws; and thereby making explicit the epistemological frame within which I work.